Volunteering at any age

Story and photo by Jessica Gonzales

Ann Mayne moved to Salt Lake City from Texas in 1991 to be closer to her son after her husband died. The change was difficult for her, and adjusting to a new community with no friends and little family made her feel helpless. At age 60, she was uncertain of what her future would be like now that she was alone.

“One morning I woke up and I said ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ I had no roots here, no sense of belonging,” she said.

Mayne’s life changed later that year after seeing a flyer for the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) at her local library. RSVP is part of one of the largest volunteer programs offered to those 55 years and older and is sponsored through the Salt Lake County Aging Services. After contacting the program, she was put in touch with the Utah Cancer Society, where she volunteered her time as a record taker and became actively involved working in other community partnerships.

Eighteen years later, Mayne continues to volunteer her time taking records in various projects, including the Healthy Aging program and RSVP at the Salt Lake County Aging Services. She spends most of her time volunteering when she can, tracking RSVP volunteer hours and collecting data from organizations involved in the program. “Volunteering has saved my life,” said Mayne, now 78. “When you help others, you help yourself.”

For seniors like Mayne, RSVP is an opportunity for them to donate their time to serving the needs of the community. Tutoring, providing meals for the elderly and involvement in environmental awareness programs are some of the many activities volunteers participate in through RSVP.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, RSVP significantly increases public support for organizations and increases the number of clients served in the organization. In return, volunteers benefit from the socialization with those whom they interact and gain a sense of belonging for contributing their time.

“They do like the involvement of what they’re doing and the fact that they are helping someone is very important to them,” said Vicki Hansen, program assistant for RSVP at Salt Lake County Aging Services. “Then they find out it makes a difference in their own lives as well.”

RSVP began in 1971 as part of a national network of community service programs called Senior Corps. Its mission is to provide volunteer opportunities for the aging community to use their talents and skills to help out their local community. RSVP has been a major success nationwide and in 2006, there were around 480,000 volunteers nationally who donated 66 million hours of their time in their local communities through the program.

Salt Lake County Aging Services has sponsored the program since 1974. There are currently 1,150 active volunteers whose ages range from 55 to 99. Last year alone, more than 200,000 hours of volunteer service were contributed to 70 community organizations, such as the University of Utah Hospital, local school districts and art museums. Collecting diverse agencies and programs is what Hansen aims to provide to guarantee volunteers are placed in an organization where they feel comfortable and confident to volunteer in.

“It’s all about matching the interests of the volunteer,” Hansen said. “Whenever someone is passionate about something and they’re enjoying what they’re doing, they feel better about what their involvement is.”

At the Kearns Food Pantry, most of the workers are RSVP volunteers. A total of 14 RSVP volunteers are active at the pantry, many who have been there for several years. Last month, the pantry fed about 2,900 needy people and volunteers donated 350 hours of their time.

“We wouldn’t have a food pantry if we didn’t have volunteers,” said Bobbie Mayberry, coordinator for the Kearns Food Pantry. “They love coming here.”

Loretta Mann, 77, became an RSVP volunteer for the pantry two years ago after she noticed an advertisement for the program at her local library. After retiring from her job at a local bank, she decided volunteering would be a great opportunity to spend her free time and engage with others in her community. Mann donates eight hours of her time each week at the Kearns Food Pantry with other volunteers whom she considers her family. She sorts and distributes food alongside with other RSVP volunteers, who have given meaning to her life .

“I really feel like I’m helping,” she said with a large grin on her face. “It will make you feel like you are needed.”

Loretta Mann, right, participates with other RSVP volunteers at the Kearns Food Pantry.

“The feedback I get from folks is amazing,” Vicki Hansen said. “The more involved they stay, the more healthy they seem to be.”

For the future of the RSVP program, Hansen hopes to see the amount of volunteers increase and become involved as the Baby Boomer generation retires. The benefits she says, will not only strengthen the community, but also strengthen the confidence of the volunteer and unlock the hidden talents they may have never discovered.

“We’re looking for people who want to initiate change,” Hansen said. “The more we have that, the better off our community will be as a whole.”